Rev. Deacon Ann Wood
May we have faith in the promises of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
There’s an old World War II saying in Britain that was popular during the time when bombs were raining down on England and it was also used for many years in the post-war period when food and other commodities were scarce – it went: “it’s bein’ so cheerful as keeps me goin’”. It was said with tongue in cheek, of course. Initially, the gospel passage, with its predictions of doom, gloom and disasters, brought it to mind for me. The passage didn’t leave me feeling exactly cheerful – did it you? If I’m not careful, I find it easy to get sucked into news stories of doom and gloom, even to get depressed by our current political and worldly upheavals. Jesus’ listeners were told to expect the worst - earthquakes and famines, wars and insurrections, hatred and betrayals. Jesus touches on many things that could possibly go wrong – natural disasters, political disasters, social disruption and personal betrayal. That’s what I hear so strongly on first reading this piece – BUT, on delving into the passage a little more closely, I discover that, in spite of all the doom and gloom, there’s hope. There are promises that Jesus makes, that assure us we’ll not be left alone to cope with disasters. He encourages us to persevere through difficult times. He says that we’ll be rewarded for doing so with a deeper understanding of Him and the life he offers and that we’re loved more than we could ever imagine. That sense of hope and God’s love for us is the take-home message from this reading. God is victorious over all evil things and we, with God’s help, can be too.
This gospel passage was Jesus’ final public discourse. It follows right after his comparisons between the rich folk in the Temple dropping their offerings in the collection plate – offerings they wouldn’t miss -and the poor widow who gave her all. The Temple was a popular gathering place and a magnificent building. It was so revered that it was customary to swear by the Temple; speaking against it could be considered blasphemy. It had become an idol and it was a symbol of beauty, stability and permanence. Imagine, then, the incredulity that Jesus faced from his listeners, when he predicted that their precious Temple would be demolished, that every stone in the building would end up in a heap of rubble. In a time of peace, this was unbelievable. Naturally, people wanted to know when this was likely to occur and what signs there might be to warn them of this impending catastrophe. Jesus continued his discourse by predicting the coming of false messiahs, who would try to lead them astray, along with the previously mentioned disasters.
Historically, there’s evidence that all of Jesus’ predictions occurred and that they first happened before the fall of Jerusalem. Jerusalem fell in 70 CE, only 7 years after the Temple’s completion. The city fell to the Romans, the Temple was set on fire, the gold mortar between the huge stones melted, they collapsed and it became a desolate ruin. Jesus promised that anyone who believed the signs and escaped would be saved. Some historians have indicated that in the terrible fall of Jerusalem, no followers of Jesus lost their lives. Jesus’ warnings were also protections. Historically, there’s also evidence of false prophets claiming to be the messiah and plenty of evidence of persecutions – the persecution especially of Jesus’ followers. “They will lay hands on you and persecute you”, Jesus said. Their stories are recorded in the Bible. John the Baptizer was the first witness to the gospel to be imprisoned; Peter, John and Stephen were hauled before the Sanhedrin, James before Herod Agrippa and Paul before Gallio. All were persecuted and imprisoned. Their persecution, however, Jesus said, would give them an opportunity to testify about him, which we’re told they did.
Then came Jesus’ first promise: “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict”. In other words, God will speak through them, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit will be with them to help and guide them. Promise #2: He will not leave them to fend for themselves. They could rely on Him for help and guidance. In spite of all this hatred and betrayal – promise #3 - by their endurance in bearing these trials and by trusting his promises, Jesus says that, from an eternal perspective “not a hair of your head shall be lost”. A life of faith is not an exemption from adversity, but a reliance on the promise of God to bear witness to that adversity, to be with us in the adversity and to be saved for eternal life through the grace and love of our God.
How might we look at the passage in today’s terms? We’re certainly experiencing earthquakes, famines, wars, insurrections and hatred. One might be tempted to think that we’re gearing up towards Jesus’ Second Coming, but, apparently, people in many past generations have also thought that they were living in the end times. Time will tell of course. Jesus, in his discourse, tells us not to worry about wars and insurrections, that they will occur and that the end won’t follow immediately. The promises he made back then to his listeners, also apply to us today. Jesus was honest in his discourse – this type of honesty is what to expect if you follow him. He could foresee signs that others couldn’t. It’s only when we see things through the eyes of God that we see them clearly. We might do that through prayer and meditation – ours, as well as that of others. Jesus also spoke of a safety that’s beyond earthly threats. Those who walk with Christ may lose their life, but never their courage and ability to endure trials and hardships.
In more recent times, in addition to the experiences of the disciples in the past, I’m reminded of someone like Nelson Mandela. He endured 27 years in prison, much of it in a damp concrete cell 8’x 7’ in dimensions, which contributed to his suffering from tuberculosis. Sometimes he was locked in solitary confinement, and for a long time, was permitted only one visit and one letter every 6 months. His wife was rarely allowed to see him and he was unable to attend the funerals of his mother and first-born son. He attended Christian services on Sundays and also studied Islam. He never gave up hope and eventually, after his release from prison, led the African National Congress to victory in an election for both blacks and whites. He became the first black President in South Africa. The first thing he did as President, was to forgive his tormenters; secondly, he incorporated them into his government. He introduced measures to encourage land reform, combat poverty and expand healthcare services, creating the Nelson Mandela Foundation, which focuses on combating poverty and HIV/AIDS. God was with him and guiding him during his times of trial and adversity. God was with him when he came to power.
Closer to home, I think of my son-in-law, Bill. Bill served as a Senior Pastor in a non-denominational/Baptist church for a number of years, until a segment of the leadership decided that they didn’t like the changes he was suggesting that would, in Bill’s opinion, lead the church forward. They made it clear to him that it was time for him to move on. He was subject to derision and forced to step down. With two children in college and a third in his final years in high school, one might imagine the financial hardship and uncertainties of not having a job or an income. In order to be employable in a Presbyterian church, the church he originally trained in, he needed to re-educate himself and submit to the ordination process of that church. God has been with him and his wife and family during these trials and adversities. He has never lost faith in God’s goodness and he’s now coming out of the dark tunnel into the light of leading a new parish and looking forward to an upcoming ordination. Adversity has strengthened him and his faith.
I can remember times in my own life when this has been true. It may have been a sense or inner knowledge that God is with me or God may have been present through a friend or stranger who came into my life at just the right time. God loves and cares for each one of us more than we can ever imagine or comprehend, so, if you’re going through a particularly difficult time, know that Jesus was there before you and will continue to be there with you now. His is the victory over all evil. Look for the grace and unexpected blessings even in a time of hardship, pain or tragedy. “By your endurance, you will gain your souls” Jesus says, and, who knows, perhaps by doing so, we’ll be able to reiterate that old World War II saying that “it’s bein’ so cheerful as keeps me goin’” without having tongue in cheek! Amen.
Rev. Deacon Ann Wood
“Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.”
Today, we’re remembering one of our patron saints – St. James, the Apostle. He’s one of the three Jameses mentioned in the New Testament. Along with his brother, John, he was one of the disciples originally called by Jesus and was among the privileged group who were close to him. James and John were sons of a prosperous, Galilean fisherman, Zebedee. James witnessed the transfiguration and the raising of Jairus’ daughter. He was the first disciple to be martyred – killed at the hands of Herod. Tradition has it that his body was taken to Spain, where he’s one of the most popular saints. The other two are James, the Lesser and James of Jerusalem, in case you’re interested.
Our James and his brother John, are the two disciples who feature most in our gospel reading today. Their misunderstanding of Jesus and the nature of his Kingdom is the opportunity for Jesus to teach them - and us - about servanthood. In so doing, Jesus does it again! He turns our worldly values upside down! As he did so often throughout the gospels, and wants to do in our own lives, Jesus reminds his followers that we have much to learn about the nature of his Kingdom. In Matthew’s version of our Gospel reading, the mother of James and John approaches Jesus to ask him for a favor. She wishes her sons to have a place of prominence in Jesus’ Kingdom. Like many of us, she wanted what, she believed in her heart, was the best situation for her children – but she misjudged the nature of the Kingdom. She and they are ambitious and thinking in terms of personal reward and personal distinction. Many of us tend to judge our accomplishments, our success in the world, or our place in society, based on the amount of money in our bank accounts, by how far up the corporate ladder we’ve climbed, the elegance of our home or what influence or control we have of those in our power. To that mother, to the other disciples and down the ages to us, Jesus said – “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.” Jesus cites his own life as an example to follow: “...just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.” Later, the apostle Paul wrote “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who though he was in the form of God . . . emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” (Phil. 2)
David Brooks, in his new book “The Second Mountain”, maintains that those who serve others, who become other-centered, rather than self-centered, exude joy in their lives. “The world tells them to want individual freedom” he says, “but they want intimacy, responsibility and commitment. The world wants them to climb the ladder and pursue success, but they want to be a person for others”. What might this kind of thinking mean for us and the way we conduct our lives? Does that joy become a part of us when we serve others? Jesus makes it clear what he calls us to do.
Just prior to our reading, Jesus and his followers are on their final journey to Jerusalem. Jesus takes the disciples aside and tells them that when he reaches Jerusalem, he will be handed over to the priests and scribes, who will condemn him to death. Surprisingly, immediately following this piece of shocking, unbelievable news, the mother of James and John approaches Jesus asking him for a favor on behalf of her sons – namely that they should be chosen to sit one at his right hand and one at his left in his Kingdom. Rather than becoming angry with her, Jesus kindly and gently asks James and John if they will be able to suffer in the same way that he is to suffer – whether they can drink the same “cup”. But then, Jesus lets them know that the granting of places of privilege in his Kingdom isn’t for him to give. That honor belongs to his Father.
Hearing the mother of James and John trying to curry favor with Jesus, the rest of the disciples are understandably angry and jealous for their own positions in the Kingdom. Their arguing catches Jesus’ attention, and he calls them all to him and explains what they need to do to become great or to become leaders. They need to serve others. He cites his own life as an example of a leader who is on earth to serve, rather than to be served – someone who will give his own life for others.
Greatness doesn’t consist of commanding others to do things for you, but consists of doing things for others. Jesus gives them – and us – a new set of values. How do we live out these values? How many people have we helped? It’s not the number of committees we’ve served on, how many material possessions we may have, or the number of people we may control. Jesus himself serves, as he calls his followers to do. He’s not the conquering earthly king or mighty leader reigning in despotic power. He demonstrates heaven’s greatness in suffering love and sacrificial service.
James and John say that they will be able to suffer, to “drink the same cup” as Jesus, and, in fact, they do. The experiences of James and John reflect the two levels of suffering involved in drinking that “cup”. James endured a short, sharp and bitter struggle. We heard in our second reading this morning how he became the first apostle to die for Jesus. John’s servanthood, or “cup”, is different. He lived a long life - it’s believed that he lived to be nearly 100 years old – survived threats on his life and exile to the island of Patmos. He’s an example of how service can build us, change us and help us bring joy to everyone we meet.
How committed are we to following Christ, to following his commands/edicts/rules for living, to being servants, giving of ourselves, being other-centered? Many of you are involved in a servant ministry – 2nd Helpings, Whitney’s Pantry, coffee hour, the gardening team and the Emmaus Companions are a few that come to mind. There are many examples of people here helping others or working for the good of the community. The diaconate is an example of a servant ministry. At ordination, the Bishop, speaking to the ordinand says “God now calls you to a special ministry of servanthood directly under your bishop. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick and the lonely”. Deacons carry out these commands in a variety of ways. There are those who minister to the homeless, while others have a prison, hospital or college presence. Still others work with veterans, the addicted and would-be immigrants. One of my tasks as a deacon, is to serve at the altar – prepare the table for the Eucharist, assist with the distribution of the elements and clean up afterwards. It’s a part of my ministry which gives me joy.
Serving others, as I’m sure you’ve found, brings its own special happiness and joy. David Brooks, again in his new book, maintains that “The more you are living a committed life well, the more joy will be your steady state, the frame of mind you carry around with you and shine on others. You will become a joyful person.” Brooks also maintains that witnessing someone else serving others brings a sense of joy to the on- looker. He tells the story of an incident when a group of people are riding home together through a snowstorm. They pass an elderly lady standing in her driveway, holding a snow shovel. One of the male passengers asks to be dropped off at the next intersection. Thinking that he must be near home, they let him out of the car. Instead of going into some nearby house, he walks up to the lady, takes her shovel and starts shoveling her driveway. One of the passengers in the car who witnesses this deed recalls that she –and I quote - “felt like jumping out of the car and hugging this guy. I felt like singing and running or skipping and laughing; telling everybody about his deed. I was joyous, happy, smiling, energized.” – end quote – and this reaction was just from witnessing a kind and helpful action!
In this world, this culture, that judges success and happiness by the number of our material possessions, or by the power we wield in our family, neighborhood, job or society, we would do well to remember Jesus’ words to his disciples: “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave”. Do we want to experience the joy that comes from serving others? Do we want to live a Christ-like life? Are we ready to have our worldly values turned upside down or do we want the greatness, prestige and accolades of the world? It’s our choice! AMEN
Rev. Deacon Ann Wood
Before I begin, I’d just like to share a bit of trivia, written by Bishop Michael Curry in his book “The Power of Love”. It’s related to our Gospel reading this morning from the 21st chapter of John:
. . . some scholars say chapter 20 ends the gospel. But if you look in your Bible, you’ll see there’s another chapter. And scholars have all sorts of theories about whether 21 is an addition, an extension or an appendix. I’m not a scholar. I’m a country preacher, and I know preachers, and you do too. I’ve got a feeling John finished his sermon in chapter 20, the plane was landing and he remembered something else, and he took off and came around again. That’s what happened.” What’s your theory?
Jesus said “Remember I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt.28:20)
“Remember I am with you always, even to the end of the age” – a promise that Jesus made to the disciples 2,000 years ago, that is also true for us today.
How do you experience that promise from God the Father/Mother, Jesus, the Son or God the Holy Spirit? “Remember, I am with you always.” Do you hear words of comfort, of healing or get a sensation of peace and tranquility? Perhaps you receive “marching orders” like Peter in the Gospel story and Paul in our first reading this morning. I suspect that most of us don’t experience God in quite such dramatic ways. We might receive words of wisdom when we pray, read scripture, sit in silence or meditate. We might hear God’s message to us through the words of someone else. Often messages are unexpected and quite often not recognized immediately for what they are.
In our Gospel story this morning, the disciples didn’t immediately recognize Jesus when he called to them. It was that time just before dawn, when the light is gray, misty and hazy. They’d been out fishing all night without a resulting catch, were tired and disheartened. Then Jesus called to them from the shore. “Children you have no fish, have you?” . . . “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” They followed Jesus’ directions and were successful. John, one of the disciples, then realized that it was Jesus calling to them, (He’d addressed them as children after all), and he told the rest of the crew. Simon Peter became so excited that he threw on his tunic and jumped into the sea, so that he could be the first to greet Jesus.
He did indeed reach the shore first, while the rest of the disciples hauled in their catch. What greeted them was Jesus preparing breakfast for them – Jesus is always practical; he knew that the men had had a tiring night and needed food, so he took care of their bodily needs first. When they were done, he addressed Simon Peter, asking him if he loved Jesus. Three times, Jesus asked the question – giving Peter the opportunity to affirm his love and redress the three denials he’d given, following Jesus’ capture and interrogation by Pilate. Once he affirmed his love, then Jesus gave Simon Peter his “marching orders” – “Feed my lambs” . . . “Tend my sheep” and finally “Feed my sheep”. Thus, Peter became a great shepherd of Christ’s people. Peter was transformed. His shame at having denied Jesus three times was lifted. He listened, heard Jesus’ words and was willing to learn. Peter’s experience of Jesus was a gentle time of healing and encouragement.
Paul’s experience of God occurred somewhat more dramatically. According to the story in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul was doing the business of the Pharisees, having one goal in mind, which was to scatter and murder the early followers of Jesus. He’d gone to the High Priest, asking for arrest warrants to take with him to the meeting places in Damascus. On the road to Damascus, a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground. A voice asked “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? He asked, “Who are you Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” When Paul got up, he was blind. His companions had to lead him by the hand into Damascus. He neither ate nor drank for three days. In the meantime, Ananias, the person who was called to help in Paul’s conversion, had his own experience of God in a vision. Initially Ananias questioned the directions Jesus gave him to enable Paul to see again. He’d heard of Paul’s hatred for the followers of Jesus and really questioned if Jesus knew what he was doing! Jesus’ response was simple: “Go”. Ananias went. Paul subsequently received his sight back. It was through Ananias that Paul received his “marching orders”. “The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will”, Ananias says, “to see the Righteous One and to hear his own voice, for you will be his witness to all the world of what you have seen and heard. And now, why do you delay? Get up, be baptized and have your sins washed away”. (I like this sense of ‘hurry up and get on with it; what are you waiting for’ attitude.) Paul thus became God’s chosen personal representative to the Gentiles, to kings and to the Jews. Sometimes, like Ananias, we do need to question the words we hear. Is this you, Lord? Is this really what you want? Are my thoughts and wishes getting in the way - but then what happens if we don’t pay attention or obey God’s directives?
I think of the story of Jonah and his mis-adventures, when he didn’t follow God’s orders to go to Ninevah. Jonah didn’t want to go to Ninevah – his own ego and nationalistic feelings got in the way. Because he disobeyed, Jonah ended up in the belly of a large fish and was nearly responsible for the deaths of the folk he was sailing with in the boat. If you haven’t read the Book of Jonah recently, do – it’s only 4 chapters. God can and does transform our mistakes, but we often suffer first before God sets us on the right path, or before we come to our senses and decide to follow God’s will. Sometimes, as in Jonah’s and Paul’s cases, it takes something dramatic to get us to change direction. Sometimes, we’re led where we don’t particularly want to go and we rebel.
My son-in-law, Bill, comes to mind. He’s a pastor in the Presbyterian Church. He was told that he needed to leave the parish where he’d spent the last ten years, but he didn’t want to have to move house. His youngest child had two more years to go to finish high school – the high school he’d been attending from middle school on; the high school from which his two older siblings had graduated. An opening occurred in a parish close to home, which would not have involved a house move. He applied, and became the church’s first choice, but there were numerous complications. At the same time, he heard via a colleague, of another opening in a parish further from home. Bill paid no attention. The first church fell through, much to his disappointment. He’s now following through on the second church and things are looking much more positive. Had he paid attention to the words of his colleague, he would have saved himself and his family some suffering and disappointment. Like many of us tend to do, he ignored the message from his colleague.
Paying attention to God’s words that come to you via others is important. I suspect that I’ve mentioned this example before, but it bears telling again in this context. I’d been “let go” from my paralegal position and was wondering about my future. What did God want me to do next? How could I serve God? I went to a meeting, where I sat next to a woman I barely knew, but who was a member of my parish. I told her of my predicament. She asked a couple of questions and then suggested that I visit Fr. Bolton in Springfield. Fr. Bolton headed a group studying clinical pastoral education. I listened to my fellow parishioner, followed through on her suggestion and felt like I’d found my true ministry at last. Jesus has plans for each one of us and will let us know what they are, if we but listen to Him.
Sometimes, Jesus comes to us when we’re most in need, as he did to the disciples on their unsuccessful fishing trip – when we’re feeling tired out, sad, overwhelmed or worried. Feeling tired and worried, I experienced God’s presence driving down I91 at 2 o’clock in the morning. I’d just received a phone call telling me that my husband had been involved in an automobile accident in Connecticut and had been taken to BayState Hospital in Springfield. On that occasion, as I drove down the highway and prayed, I felt a sense of peace come over me and a sureness that he would be alright. He was!
My brother-in-law, Jonathan, experienced God in a dream when he was feeling distraught about his daughter’s safety. She’d recently been married, realized what a terrible mistake she’d made and left her new husband without telling anyone where she was going or with whom she might be staying. Needless to say, my sister and brother-in-law were frantic with worry while they tried to find out where she’d gone. None of her friends could shed any light on the situation. Her new husband was very angry and believed that her parents must know where she was. One night, a week or so later, my brother-in-law was woken by a felt presence in the room. He thought it was his deceased father-in-law. Jonathan heard a voice reassuring him that his daughter was safe, that everything would work out eventually, but that he, Jonathan, had to take the lead and be the responsible father during the unpleasantness that was to follow. This was not a role he would’ve undertaken without having had this prompting. Jonathan and my sister were reassured and thankful for this experience of God’s loving care.
Last week, we heard about another post-Easter appearance by Jesus to the disciples as he had promised them before he died. They were hiding in a locked room for fear of being arrested. They also were feeling sad and distraught. Things with their leader hadn’t worked out as they’d hoped or thought they would. Jesus came to them where they were, as they were – just as he did to Bill, to Jonathan and to me – just as he does to each one of us here and now. Perhaps you’ll experience Him when you receive communion this morning, listen to the readings from scripture or hear the music. Perhaps you experience God when you walk the labyrinth, when you walk in the woods or stand on the sea shore and marvel at the beauty around you. Perhaps you’re in need of an experience of God right now – to comfort, heal, or strengthen you, or just to receive a sense of uplifting joy. If so, I pray that you will have that experience. Remember, Jesus has promised to be with us always, even to the end of the age. We know that Jesus keeps his promises. AMEN.
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